Name: Alexandra Gutierrez
Hometown: West Orange, New Jersey
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English, Spanish, French (intermediate)
University: Cornell University
Bachelors: Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Past travel experience: Moderate
Volunteer Abroad: Assisting at a shelter for girls and Caring for children with disabilities in Cusco, Peru
Duration: 17 weeks
Start month: January 2016
Claim to fame: Alexandra has also volunteered in the surgery department of The University Hospital and shadowed doctors in Lima’s Polyclinic. Very impressive Alexandra, keep up the good work!
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
Since high-school, I knew that I wanted to make volunteering abroad a part of my academic career. I decided to take a gap term from Cornell to do volunteering, so I was given a list of gap term options through its Career Services. UBELONG stood out to me when I saw that the founders of the NGO were former Cornell students. Out of all the countries that I could choose from, I chose Peru- the country where I am from. I was born in Peru, but lived in the United States since I was one year old. I visited my family in the capital of Lima every few years, but I would only stay for a short period of time. I never had the chance to travel in Peru, to integrate into the culture, or learn about the spectrum of lifestyles of the Peruvian people. I only saw Peru through the lenses of my family members.
Even though I am Peruvian, I was amazed by how much I learned during my four months volunteering in Cusco through UBELONG, such as the food, history, hiking trails, life stories, socio-economic problems, political issues, and daily hardships of the people. After a few weeks, I felt that I truly did become part of the Peruvian community. Volunteering gave me a different view of the people and my birth country. Peru became more than just “the country that I am from”. I saw the country in a new light- a place of unity, unconditional love, strength, and pure humility. It became a second home to me in the literal sense. This trip has shaped the way I connect to my ethnicity, Catholic faith, and the global community in a powerfully positive way. Traveling lets you see the beauty of a country, but volunteering through UBELONG lets you see its beauty while learning about its reality.
What did you find most rewarding from your volunteer experience?
During my UBELONG trip, I had the opportunity to participate in two projects for the duration of two months each.
My first project in Cusco was the Assisting at a shelter for girls project. These were girls under 18 that looked like me. I was even confused as one of the girls at the project, but that made me happy. The confusion that the teacher had in the orphanage confirmed to me that I am one of Peru’s people. I felt integrated and part of these girls’ lives. What was rewarding from my volunteering experience in this project was that it was completely giving, but the exchange unintentionally disproportionate. The volunteers and I would give the girls the knowledge of the English language, a sense of higher self-esteem, safety, companionship, and preparation for the new school year. But what the girls gave us was much more! After helping them, we took home creative skills, the love for working in a team, higher maturity level, deeper understanding of South American culture, and a more meaningful life. What we earned from volunteering abroad not only will help us professionally in any career, but will help us lead to a selfless and happy life.
My second project in Cusco was the Caring for children with disabilities project. As the author Walt Balenovich stated, “The world isn’t built with a ramp,” but neither is the world built with an omnipresent understanding of disability. Too often, I see a lot of separation among disabled and non-disabled people, especially in schools. Volunteering in the classroom with deaf children, helping the teacher who was in a wheelchair teach lessons, learning sign language, and playing soccer with children with other disabilities during their lunch time had instead created a union among us. The more time I spent in the disabilities school by feeding children, cleaning dishes, sweeping the floor, cleaning the bathroom, making sign language power-points, creatively decorating the classroom with posters, and playing with the children outside in the sun and the rain, the more I saw myself as equal to every child. In my mind, the differences began to fade. This is what made this volunteer experience truly unique. In the end of my trip, I realized that the primary motivation beneath most of my actions during my volunteer experience was nothing more, and nothing less than the human desire to serve others and promote equality. Volunteering in Cusco definitely taught me that I should take this motivation with me everywhere.
What three pieces of advice would you give a future UBELONG Volunteer?
- I would advise future volunteers to be open minded about what their experience will turn out to be. Volunteering abroad is difficult, especially if you are a teenager like me, since it involves having a lot of independence. Feeling homesick is a normal feeling, but soon you will realize that the city that you volunteered in, becomes a second home.
- My second advice is to learn how to gain perspective of your life. The lifestyle in the U.S. can become overwhelming stressful for many due to work, school, family, and relationships, but you will realize that there is more to life than these worries. The goal is to gain a new understanding and appreciation of your own life.
- My last advice is to focus on forming real relationships with other volunteers. Volunteers will come from different countries and different walks of life. In Cusco, I made nice friendships with people from all around the world (Germany, Israel, Canada, Brazil, Spain, etc.) and even became best friends with my friend Julia Leask from Long Island, New York who will be studying Psychology in New York City this year. The experience becomes so much better when you get to know people in a deep and personal level.